The outcasts

Nepalis at the grassroots for whom grassroots democracy has not delivered


These are the forgotten Nepalis, who do not seem to matter to anyone in all three levels of government. Elected members of ward, municipal or provincial councils should be listening to them, but they do not. 

The demand for federalism was first raised from these districts which were always treated as peripheral by Kathmandu. Yet, even after the provinces were carved out in 2015 to devolve decision-making, these families on the margins still do not count. 

They are not powerless, they were never given any power. They are not voiceless, they are not allowed a voice.

The state does not need to move mountains to meet their needs. Their needs are simple: make the citizenship process easier, provide a hand pump in the village for safe drinking water, make sure the health post has a nurse, protect them from persecution from powerful castes.

Read also: Fogbound Tarai, Chandra Kishore

But the gap between Nepalis who have access to state services and those left out is widening. Grassroots democracy under federalism has not changed the fortunes of those at the grassroots. A new class of politicians is emerging who are riding identity-based provincial politics, but they have no time for the corner people who elected them.

The state’s legitimacy should stem from how much the perennially outcast, landless or Dalits are allowed to voice their concerns. Eight years after the Constitution, and two elections later, there has been no improvement in the condition of Nepal’s most underserved.

The problem of landless Dalits in the Tarai is different from others from this community in Nepal. Families are crammed inside mud and thatch huts come winter, summer or monsoon.

I ask them if the ward or municipality leaders they elected have ever visited, and they shake their heads. Provincial politics is just a proxy for Kathmandu’s bloated centralised system.

Read also: Feudal federalism, Editorial

In these backwaters of the Tarai, political power comes out of the claws of excavators mining sand from rivers. Power is flaunted by hobnobbing with imported godmen, by ignoring the victims of loan sharks, or neglecting the neglected.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But that freedom means nothing to people not given the means to express themselves. Grassroots democracy was supposed to be the mechanism for them to be heard, but that channel has been muted by power brokers.

Local radio stations and media should have stepped in, but they are victims of self-censorship themselves. Media owners are hand in glove with the powers that they cannot hold to account. The social media sphere is too preoccupied with sharing selfies.

The local media should be the medium to amplify the concerns of excluded castes and classes, and be the solution. But it is a part of the problem. Local journalists are megaphones for the already rich and powerful, they have no time for those at ground zero.

Read also: Un-centralising the federal structure, Chandra Kishore

These are families so deprived and abandoned they do not even have the resources or connections to march to Kathmandu to press their demands. Small people have small wants, but multiply these with the expectation of millions and it becomes a wildfire of outrage that can engulf those in the ivory towers.

A recent visit to the hinterlands of Madhes Province was a chance for me to hear about local governments engaged in local plunder. In paddy fields and roadside shacks, there was talk of corruption, extortion and a sense of abandonment. These districts in the plains used to be ignored by Kathmandu, now they are ignored by the local officials they themselves elected. 

The movers and shakers of the Madhes regard genuine empowerment at the grassroots with suspicion, afraid that freedom will allow the anger to erupt one day.

And to distract public attention from this failure to address the needs of the neediest, politicians use aggressive intolerance and refuse to even acknowledge that the people they were elected to serve do exist.  

Read also: How decentralised is federalism?, Kiran Nepal

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based commentator who writes this monthly column Borderlines for Nepali Times.

Chandra Kishore